When the subject turns to drugs, even the most skeptical reporters go all wobbly. This week, the instability was caused by a public-relations event staged by the Drug Enforcement Administration called the "National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day." Allied with medical boards, police chiefs, district attorneys, boards of pharmacy, and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the DEA has helped establish more than 4,000 drop spots for people to discard their unused and unwanted prescription drugs tomorrow, Sept. 25, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
The Associated Pressdidn't pause to ask if the organized disposal of stray meds will change drug-use patterns in any significant way. Neither did the Washington Post, the Cincinnati Enquirer, Newsday, the Seattle Times, the Orlando Sentinel, the Bangor Daily News, the Columbus Dispatch, and other papers, including the many that ran the AP story.
Only one daily in my survey displayed the remotest skepticism about the event's usefulness—the New York Times ("A Wave of Addiction and Crime, with the Medicine Cabinet to Blame," Sept. 24). The Times cites unnamed skeptics who say that gun buybacks haven't reduced the gun-crime rate, so why should a "take-back" day for meds reduce drug use, especially seeing as drug take-back day, unlike gun-buyback days, isn't offering a cash reward for surrendering contraband?
The Times deserves additional commendation for stating this obvious point: People hoard their pain and anxiety meds for the simple reason that they may need them later. (Raise your hand if you've got some codeine or Vicodin in your emergency stash.) Also, the Times bests its competitors by reporting that the organizers confess that one day of drug drop-off spots will harvest "but a tiny fraction of the addictive drugs lining the nation's medicine cabinets," that the event will do nothing about the "over-prescribing of powerful drugs," and the stunt will at best raise "awareness."
So take a bow, New York Times. You didn't completely blow the assignment.
Now, sit down and take the special batch of medicine I've brewed for you.
The Times reports uncritically the claims of "officials" that opiate painkiller and other prescription drugs "are driving addiction and crime like never before." No crime statistics to support the assertion are offered. Instead, the Times treats readers to two accounts of home invasion, the first in Harpswell, Maine, and the second in Hyannis, Mass., and reports the observation made by a DEA assistant special agent in Boston that pill thieves now routinely pillage medicine cabinets during real-estate open houses. Do two anecdotes and a modus operandi constitute an unprecedented crime spree? No. And if open houses are turning into drug bazaars, why don't real-estate agents get a clue and tell their clients to de-drug their bathrooms before they show their homes? I sense an urban myth here.
Nobody who has gleaned recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports contests that deaths involving prescription opioid drugs have been on the rise since 1999. It's a fact. But the Times article inexplicably adds nonprescription drugs into its mortality analysis in the sentence that reads: "In 17 states, death from drugs—both prescription and illegal—now exceed those from motor vehicle accidents, with opiate painkillers paying a leading role." If the story is about dangerous meds in the bathroom, it makes no journalistic sense to offer mortality statistics that mix both legal meds and strictly illegal drugs. Bad New York Times!
The Times' observation about death rates also ignores the vital fact that, as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports, motor vehicle deaths have been dropping precipitously since 2005. In 2007, 41,259 people died in traffic crashes. In 2008, 37,423 died. In 2009 (PDF), just 33,808 died. That drug deaths now exceed crash deaths in 17 states may have a lot more to do with declining numbers of crashes than increasing numbers of drug deaths. I'd love to know the names of the 17 states and read the underlying data.
One reliable marker of a public-relations blitz is the appearance of the same victim in two competing stories. Both the AP and the Times chronicle the sad death of 18-year-old Tim Strain, who they report was not a drug abuser. I doubt very much if the two news organization found his parents independently. Did the DEA or one of the sponsors of the "take-back" day introduce his parents to the press?
As the AP and the Times report, Strain was taking prescribed Percocet for a burn when his girlfriend's mother offered him two pills for his pain. She thought the pills were Percocet, but they turned out to be methadone and killed him. (He's in the AP's lede and in the Times' kicker.) Yes, Strain's death is tragic, but are 18-year-olds really the face of drug overdoses in America? Not according to the CDC, which finds that men and the middle-aged are more likely than other groups to die from drug overdoses.
Likewise, how often are "leftover" drugs—which the DEA's "take-back" day seeks to eradicate—the primary suspect in drug overdoses? If leftovers aren't a common culprit, I want the DEA and the drug-abuse industrial complex, with which it has partnered, to admit that the Saturday program is just a public relations stunt.
Let me end on a positive note. Last night, a reader sent me a terrific piece of drug reporting published in July in San Diego County's North County Times. The article demolished the wild exaggerations by the county's sheriff, district attorney, and supervisors that there was an "epidemic" of OxyContin use among the county's high-schoolers and those in their 20s. It's a perfect piece of journalism, one that the Times ought to share with its reporters.
Thanks to C.J. Croy and Randy Dotinga for their insights, and thanks to everybody who followed and contributed to the Twitter hashtag I set up last night to crowdsource this piece. Send your unused and unwanted meds to email@example.com. For a cheap high, follow my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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